It may be that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But as Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle demonstrate in the new Hulu comedy “PEN15,” the same is true of those who remember it painfully well.
The series, arriving Friday, kicks off just before the first day of seventh grade in 2000 for Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and Anna Kone (Konkle). Maya, hoping to start school with a new identity, picks up a pair of scissors to give herself Sarah Michelle Gellar’s haircut. The next morning — her handiwork corrected by her mother with the aid of a mixing bowl — she slumps next to Anna in their morning car pool. “It looks so good!” Anna assures her, with a brace-faced smile.
It does not. And their first day goes as badly as you might expect: This is middle school, after all. But what distinguishes the series isn’t the cringe comedy. It’s the immediate sincere-weirdo voice, which powers “PEN15” through an uneven but delightfully odd first season.
“PEN15,” the square-peg kid sister of “Broad City” and “Eighth Grade,” dispenses its turn-of-the-century details — AskJeeves, AIM chat rooms, dial-up modems, “Wazzup?” — with the precision of an “Only ’00s Kids Will Get This” quiz. (Want to feel old? The year 2000 is exactly as long ago now as 1980, the setting of “Freaks and Geeks,” was when that show premiered.)
But there’s more to “PEN15,” which Erskine and Konkle created with Sam Zvibleman, than millennial nostalgia. What it recalls best is the period in life when friendship is more like mutual superfandom. Maya and Anna vow to experience everything together, from first kisses to first cigarettes; in one episode they share a T-shirt and refer to themselves as “Mayanna.”
If all this seems hyperrealistically well-remembered, it may be because Erskine and Konkle were themselves 13-year-olds in 2000. This is both the gimmick and the hurdle of “PEN15.” A lot is riding on how much you buy these 30-something women as middle-schoolers, even as they’re surrounded by actual middle-school-aged actors.
Personally, I entirely forgot that the actresses are old enough to purchase their own beer. O.K., almost entirely — it is unsettling when a scene calls for them to flirt with their young co-stars, but the show wisely deploys Konkle’s real-life boyfriend as a mouth double for a kiss.
The key is that, rather than use the casting for grotesquerie or sight gags, Erskine and Konkle just play it straight, drawing on memory and personal experience. (Adding to the from-life feel of the series, Erskine’s real-life mother, Mutsuko Erskine, plays Maya’s mom.)
[Plan ahead for the month to come with our culture calendar.]
Anna has a gawky cheerfulness that helps smooth over the dawning reality of her parents’ (Melora Walters and Taylor Nichols) strained marriage. Maya is more extroverted, a class clown with a manic side that she uses as an all-purpose defense mechanism — most affectingly when Maya, who’s Japanese-American, is picked on by a clique of racist mean girls.
Their transformation isn’t just about costumes, posture and orthodontics; it’s how the co-stars carry themselves. Maya and Anna are, as Britney Spears would sing a year later, not girls and not yet women. They still play with Sylvanian Families dolls, but channel their awakening hormones into having the teeny woodland creatures play out torrid soap dramas. (“I can’t do this anymore. I have a wife and kids at home!”)
Sometimes, they can regress into babyhood; other times, they’re possessed by puberty, as when Maya discovers masturbation and finds herself aroused by everything from horse figurines to desert-landscape art.
Joining a miniboom for raunchy coming-of-age comedies (“Sex Education,” “Big Mouth”), “PEN15” brashly claims the kind of horny humor that past teen comedies reserved for guys. In one episode, Maya and Anna come into joint possession of a pair of thong underwear — long story — and it’s an empowering experience akin to putting on the One Ring.
But the show also understands that sex comedy isn’t just about sex. In this case, it’s about growing and self-definition and letting go of childhood.
“PEN15” often walks a line between sweet and crude, between memoir and sketch comedy, and sometimes it falls smack off it. (The title, which comes from an orthographic schoolyard prank, is an example; it just kind of sits on top of the show like graffiti carved on a desk.)
When it works, though, it’s an idiosyncratic tribute to friendship at its most possessively intense. As the girls sit on the floor and playact a Sylvanian Families vignette, Maya asks Anna, “Can we, like, never not do this?” The beauty of “PEN15” is to let you know exactly how she feels, even as you know the answer to her question.